Spring is not just a time to harvest perennial forages. To be sure, more and more livestock producers are incorporating winter cereals such as rye and triticale into their crop rotations. Just as with perennials, winter cereals demand a harvest plan and strategy that will capitalize on its ability to deliver both high yields and quality.

“The warm late-fall temperatures offered ample opportunity for winter cereals, especially triticale, to produce tillers,” says Tom Kilcer, a researcher and crop consultant in Kinderhook, N.Y. “This sets the crop up for higher than normal yields, but it also means drying the crop down will be more challenging.”

In Kilcer’s monthly newsletter, Crop Soil News, he outlines harvest guidelines that he has found to be beneficial for maximizing the forage quality of winter cereals. They are:

1. Harvest the crop after the last leaf (flag leaf) has emerged and unfolded but before the head is visible. If temperatures are cool to cold, quality may hold into the early heading stage. Conversely, under warm to hot conditions, forage quality drops more quickly and the importance of a timely prehead harvest becomes more critical.

2. Cut the crop leaving no less than a 3-inch stubble. This inhibits soil (ash) from being picked up and harvested, especially if the crop is raked or tedded.

3. Lay the crop out as wide as possible when cutting, preferably at least 80 percent of the cutterbar width. Heavy crops laid in a narrow windrow never dry. Laying the crop out in a wide swath puts more of the crop in contact with the sun and takes advantage of photosynthesis as a sugar-making and drying aid.

4. Don’t use the deflector shield on the mower-conditioner to make wide swaths. Doing so creates large clumps of forage that are difficult to dry.

5. Under high-yield conditions, even a wide swath may need to be tedded so that the bottom, wet forage can be exposed to sunlight. For wide swaths, this needs to be done about 2 hours after cutting. If the swath is less than 80 percent of cut width (as most are), Kilcer suggests tedding immediately after cutting and then a second time if needed to get the crop dry enough to harvest. Keep tedding speeds slow to avoid the formation of large clumps.

6. Set forage harvester cutting length at 0.75 to 1.25 inches using sharp knives. A longer cut is more slowly digested by ruminant livestock, preserves plant cell sugars, and minimizes the amount of the leachate from the silo.

7. Use a homolactic inoculant at harvest. Kilcer recommends finding one that is specific for high-sugar, high-moisture grasses.

8. Minimize the time from cutting to chopping; this preserves forage quality.